Things to love about Beijing…

It’s hardly an exhaustive list and is mostly based on observations and experiences from the past week or so, but I thought I’d jot down a few of my favorite things about the ‘Jing.

  • Beijing parks in the early morning.  Jingshan, Beihai, even tiny Nanguan…parks all over the city are bustling at 6:00 a.m. I’m certainly not a gerontologist, but there has to be a significant mental and physical benefit to seniors who participate in daily group exercise.  And the variety of activities is something to behold–dancing, tai chi, calligraphy, bird walking, one fellow who bends at the waist, legs straight, and walks on all fours for the length of the park (try this sometime, you won’t make it 10 yards).
  • The variety of great food available for less than 10 RMB.  Snacks, breakfast, lunch, noodles, chuan’r…you can live in Beijing and spend anywhere between 15 and 1500 kuai on dinner, and some of my 15 kuai dinners have been the better than a few fancy banquets I’ve attended by a long shot.
  • I like the new metro lines. The trains are comfortable and the two giant xiangqi boards built into the floor of the Dongsi Line 5 platform are a nice touch.
  • Hutong living.  YJ and I just moved into a small pingfang in a yard with about 19 other families.  The yard itself is cool and I love our little house, but the best part about living there are the neighbors.  Within a week of moving in, we’ve met just about everybody and it really seems like the residents all look out for each other.  (By contrast, we lived in our loufang for nearly two years and never exchanged more than a forced ‘ni hao’ with the yuppie across the hall.)  It’s also been fun sitting in the middle courtyard with the neighbors after dinner shooting the shit about whatever.  Good times.
  • Basketball.  You’re never far away from a court in Beijing and once you’re on the court, it’s easy to get into a game.  The skill level varies wildly among the local players, but the enthusiasm is always consistently high.  Generally speaking too, people are pretty good sports.  There will always be exceptions, but it’s usually a friendly atmosphere without a lot of egos getting in the way of a good game.
  • So many people are into history.  I love it when random interactions with strangers or passing acquaintances turn into 45 minute discussions of military strategy during the Ming-Qing transition.
  • Good move on the part of the municipality to go to odd/even days for cars.  It hasn’t really had any effect on the air quality, but it’s made the streets a lot nicer for bikes and pedestrians.  Personally, I wouldn’t have any objection to making the policy permanent after the games.
  • Ding zuo. You can have just about anything custom made in Beijing. Dining room table in the showroom too short? We’ll build it taller.  Need to hide the ugly refrigerator in the middle of your living room? Custom-made Qing style cabinet with no floor or back and an extra-wide door.  Good suits. Leather shoes. Whatever.  If you can draw a picture and give some idea of what size and color, somebody can make it for you.
  • The music scene. They’ll never get on the radio, but bands like Joyside, Snapline, Buyi, Brain Failure, and Second Hand Rose (to name only a very very few) play good music with passion.  Sure a lot of the bands might not have the greatest chops and some of the songwriting lacks polish, but the level of enthusiasm with which the music is performed makes up for a lot.  Besides, when was rock and roll ever about polish over passion?

What’s on your list?


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 78 Comments

Si, the reference to Slough completely escaped me, yet another reason for you to follow standard punctuation.

Chengdu (it is laid back, easy, and the width of the major thoroughfares impresses me almost as much as the sight of a single car blocking four lanes of traffic) and Kunming (great weather) are the only other cities I’d consider living in as the many others I visit are indistinguishable: sprawls of dreary buildings, tarted up shopping centers, dust and noise, knots of cars, bikes and motorcycles carooming off each other, and like the US more and more goods in common as local brands fade away. Local foods and flavours remain but the goods in shops become ever more homogeneous, and that local handicraft bought years ago can no longer be had.

The women of Chengdu are considered beauties but traditionally had no such reputation, not like West Lake. I think the exaggeration comes from parvenue of the coastal cities (yes, including the lunks from Beijing) who would fly into the hinterlands that were then Chengdu and Chongqing for business, frolic at cheap expense, then return with bragging rights. Xinjiang is getting the same kind of reputation.

There are famous spots around Chengdu but travelling by car from Chengdu to Chongqing note the terraced hillsides, the amount of work it took to build then maintain them, yet now more and more are abandoned, given over to grass and vines as the young stream to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai for wages, the same bloody reason why young from the surrounding provinces stream to Beijing for work that is dirty, dangerous and ill-paid. Many have nothing to earn by but labour or selling smiles.

July 31, 2008 @ 4:37 pm | Comment

Scott, ‘Slough’ is also the name of a town in England, and the eponymous subject of the poem “Slough” by John Betjeman. So who’s the ignorant one here?

Chris, I have to say, I’m not sold on Beijing as a good walking city either, unless you’re really in the mood for it. Exceptions: inside the second ring road, on a nice spring or early fall night, or during a World Cup game when all the oldsters in the alleys move their TVs onto the street and sit around jawing. It is, however, a fantastic biking city, which I understand cannot be said of Shanghai.

The quality and variety of food available in Beijing is just awesome. There are a few gaps in the city’s palate (some Vietnamese food and Georgia barbecue would be nice), but in general you can get anything you want, any time you want, and usually within walking distance. And if you’ve got a bike…well! In my current apartment I’m a five-minute bike ride away from dim sum, Shaanxi noodles, Beijing-style potstickers, a hole-in-the-wall Guizhou joint, and some of the finest Sichuan and Hunan food available, all 24-hours except for the Guizhou place.
And the street food! 煎饼 in the morning with a bag of 豆浆, and 糖葫芦 in the wintertime, made fresh so the glaze crackles, and 麻辣烫 out on the sidewalk when you need something to balance out the cheap beers you’ve been having with your friends.

I really like the people here. There are plenty of pricks too, of course, but there’s something in the Beijing attitude that frequently makes for good conversation. Beijingers have a great sense of humor, too — check out the series 编辑部的故事 on Youku or Tudou for examples of same, or the novels of Wang Shuo.

Sort of in the vein of reverse_expat’s comments (which were excellent!), one of the things I really like is when you stumble upon a fragment of old Beijing, or find out about the long-vanished building or road a neighborhood is named after. And in a more bittersweet vein, I always find it fascinating to think of the things that might have been if, e.g., Liang Sicheng’s plan had won out and the city wall had been kept as a public park, moving development (and, presumably, prestige projects) outside the Second Ring. (A similar game, if you ever really want to make yourself sad, is to imagine what things might be like today if basically nothing from the Hundred Flowers movement on to the end of the Cultural Revolution had ever happened.)

Also, have to chime in with otherlisa on the accent. Beijing Mandarin is Chinese the way Jesus spoke it, and no two ways about it. (Some heretics believe that Jesus spoke Hakka; I won’t dignify those claims with a discussion.) I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but come on — listen to the actors Ge You or Jiang Wen and tell me you wouldn’t want to sound like that.

July 31, 2008 @ 4:42 pm | Comment


At least I keep an open mind, much more than I can say about you. Its pretty obvious from your comments that you have limited experience in China, and especially interacting with locals, so it is not surprising that your comments reflect a narrow minded view of the two cities.

You are the one who should be embarrassed by your comments – kind of like the frog in the well.

July 31, 2008 @ 4:45 pm | Comment


Great comments. You really expressed what Beijing is made up of – and you are right about the walking, stay inside the 2nd ring road, but there are also walks around the Jian Wai/Ritan/Chaowai areas that are great as well. But made a lot better in the fall.

July 31, 2008 @ 4:57 pm | Comment

Bigdog like many here – especially habitues of China blogs but, of course, in English – arrogate to themselves superior knowledge of China and define themselves mostly by their experience here, no matter how brief or limited, and their trump card is always to claim how much they’re in with the locals. But they’re not really dependent on locals or local understanding for a livelihood to support a family, but are just coasters. So too, like many Chinese who in any disagreement will run for the moral high ground rather than argue the actualities and merits Bigdog and his ilk, mostly here to put in their first few years of academic research or manage temporary employment, fall back behind I-Know-China-Better-Than-You-Do and throw spitwads of spite to prove it.

Hey, Brendan! Si didn’t capitalize Slough, and from the context I couldn’t immediately see he intended a place. Sorry, but I don’t always get the point from text message-style punctuation and grammar, u c? .

July 31, 2008 @ 5:23 pm | Comment


Huh? You really have lost the plot.

July 31, 2008 @ 5:39 pm | Comment

And Scott:

I have 15 years of experience in China, so your comments just show how ridiculous and limited your grasp of things is.

just get off this blog so intelligent people can discuss adult things.

July 31, 2008 @ 5:47 pm | Comment

How’s every one missed this gem: listening to a pair of 老北京 arguing.

July 31, 2008 @ 5:48 pm | Comment

Post and Comments Summary:

Here’s a few good things about Beijing. What do you like?
I don’t like Beijing, I like Shanghai.
Yes but this is about Beijing.
Beijing sucks and I will comment on Shanghai if I fucking want to.
Taipei isn’t bad.
Well thank you for your input. Anyone else?
That Shanghai guy is an idiot.
You are an uneducated dolt!
Your mother wears combat boots and your father served Mao on his knees!
Nyah! Nyah Nyah!
Oh, nobody mentioned this cool thing.

July 31, 2008 @ 5:58 pm | Comment

Scott, are you always this irritating? What are you – a man determined to prove he’s superior to everyone else and who thumbs his nose at those who read blogs about China in English – doing here? And haven’t you heard the news – that people who constantly try to impress others with how smart they are tend to look more disturbed than they do deep?

July 31, 2008 @ 6:00 pm | Comment

Michael, it’s not quite that bad. If Scott hadn’t taken the thread over it would’ve been pretty decent.

Oh, and thanks for the best comment of the day, Brendan. A dubious honor.

July 31, 2008 @ 6:01 pm | Comment


thanks for the comments. and ok, i concede the point about ge you. but you have to admit for every ge you there’s someone with a voice like a eastern european car trying to start on frosty morning.

i liked what you have to say about thinking about what might have been. Have you read “Wild Grass” by Ian Johnson? There’s a fascinating section on the treatment of old Beijing.

I was worried when you said there is no Vietnamese in Beijing. Did you mean good Vietnamese or not many Vietnamese? there used to be a decent place in hou hai, i forget its name. is it still there?

July 31, 2008 @ 6:04 pm | Comment

reverse_expat: One of my favorite exchanges was something I heard from a true-blue Beijinger and some gawky young kid from the countryside on the subway a couple of years ago:

Country kid (to nobody in particular): 哇,俺都没坐过14号线呐!
Beijing guy standing next to him: 傻.
C: 真没坐过!
B: 真傻.

July 31, 2008 @ 6:05 pm | Comment

Si: I have a copy of Wild Grass back in the States, but I don’t think I ever got around to reading it. As for Vietnamese — sorry; I meant good Vietnamese. And I guess I should qualify that — there is a good Viet place at Huamao that offers the least-bad pho I’ve had here, but it’s pricey and fancy, which goes against the ethos of Vietnamese food as far as I’m concerned. The place at Houhai (if you mean Nuage) is still there, I think, or at least was the last time I went to Houhai, but I was never all that bowled over by it, nice decor notwithstanding.

(Sorry — everyone else is derailing this thread; thought I might as well.)

July 31, 2008 @ 6:13 pm | Comment

maybe it was my fault. i thought maybe we could have a bit of light hearted bantering but clearly was mistaken. apologies to all.

July 31, 2008 @ 6:24 pm | Comment

Gratuitously throwing in a reference to a “stark naked female personality” is a little embarassing, don’t you think?

As for Shanghai being “sassy and irresistible”, there are plenty of folks here (I’m in Shanghai) who share your delusion. It certainly is an exciting city but currently lacks depth and is sometimes prone to a snobbishness that is anything but irresistable.

Shanghai is totally flat and a great city to bike around.

July 31, 2008 @ 6:40 pm | Comment

sorry i just realised i didn’t write my own suggestions:

1. autumn in beijing (pity about winter, spring and summer!)
2. houhai – before they turned it into one big bar
3. walking on the lake at the summer palace in the winter
4. the great wall – cliched but true. nothing beats hiking on the great wall.
5. the old summer palace
6. beihai, the drum and bell tower and the surroundings (if still there)
7. the hutongs (stop knocking them down dammit! And stop building cheap imitations)

i was last there over two years ago, so don’t know how much it has changed…

July 31, 2008 @ 7:08 pm | Comment

Another favorite is Temple of the Azure Clouds 碧云寺. Why don’t some of our Shanghai friends list some of their favorite things about that city?

July 31, 2008 @ 10:56 pm | Comment

I really love Bejing! It´s so beautiful, so many beautiful spots to visit and the people are great. I totally agree with you. Nice blog, btw.!

August 1, 2008 @ 12:13 am | Comment

If you want a good list of what is most charming and individual about Beijing, you can take a look at those Olympic etiquette-Nazis’ latest lists of prohibitions. In a city this hot and humid, it makes perfect sense to wear your pyjamas in the daytime (and it’s not just old folks making house calls on their neighbours that do this). Ditto, going shirtless, if that’s your preference. I love counting up each summer to see which faction is most numerous.

Low cost is a big attraction here, too. Yeah, sure, there’s a little bit of Olympic inflation going on at the moment, and every year there’s an insidious creep of more and more upscale, wannabe-Shanghai places opening; but the hole-in-the-wall restaurant and dive bar culture is still thriving. I’ve never found anywhere in Shanghai where you can get a steamer of jiaozi for 2.50, or a Tsingtao in a bar for 10 – and I have certainly looked. From my experience, I’d say Beijing is still one of the cheapest major cities in China – not just way cheaper than Shanghai, but also than Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and perhaps even Dalian and Qingdao, and not much more expensive than the likes of Chongqing and Kunming.

And could I say a word for Beijing cabbies too? They may not always know where the hell they’re going, but they’re always colourful characters. And they’re so darned numerous that – outside of rush hour in the CBD – you rarely have to wait more than 10 seconds to flag one down.


Street corner chess games.

Old ladies practicing their fan dance routine outside my local pharmacy.

Rooftop bars.

Sunset over Houhai.

Becoming known in your neighbourhood – smiles of recognition and greeting are so nice (even though I speak bugger-all Chinese). A few weeks ago the laoban of my favourite Xinjiang place chased me down the street to give me a refund when he realised he’d goofed up my bill by a few kuai.

I even love the relentless rickshaw touts trying to sell me a ride when I’m walking home with my groceries.

OK, you could find a lot of this anywhere in China – but we like to think that in Beijing it’s all got its own special style. This place drives me absolutely crazy much of the time, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else. Certainly not Shanghai.

August 1, 2008 @ 6:09 pm | Comment

Mr Loar, the only thing you have achieved with this thread is to confirm my suspicion that Shanghainese are the Aucklanders of China, and I assure you, two thirds of the population of New Zealand will not pass the time of day with an Aucklander. Pity, I’ve always stubbornly held on to the belief that there might actually be something worth seeing in Shanghai before the mudpile sinks beneath the waves, despite what my wife and almost everybody I know who’s ever been there has told me about the mudpile.

Matt and Brendan: I’m sorry, I’ve always been quite happy to walk absurd distances just for the hell of it. But with my walking comment I was thinking primarily within the second ring road.

And might I add to the list of things to love about Beijing:
Mentougou, Yanqing and Miyun. Especially Yanqing (of course).

August 1, 2008 @ 9:46 pm | Comment

Chriswaugh – how could I forget to mention Yanqing?!

August 2, 2008 @ 1:29 am | Comment

Oh. Oops. In my stupor of last night, I read “Yanjing.” My favorite Chinese beer. Um, I’ll just quietly make my exit now…

August 2, 2008 @ 3:43 pm | Comment

A few years ago I had dinner with an acquaintance in Shanghai government who – when told that longer-term expats in Beijing and Shanghai disparage each other like the natives – refused to believe me, and asked for proof. So, I did the natural thing, and I offered myself as proof, and thus began a long, baijiu-infused tirade against China’s North that has bound us ever since. Thanks to all here, but especially the very under-appreciated Scott_Loar, who has now given me an excuse to email this gentleman after having not spoken to him in several months. His English is poor, but when I tell him the nature of this thread, well, he won’t be able to resist throwing some poor soul at it for translation.

This is a Beijing crowd, no doubt, and so I tread carefully when I note that – among the finer breed of Shanghai expats – we truly believe that you spend your days talking of politics and architecture, but are otherwise incapable of getting anything done in a reasonable amount of time. And I’ll leave it at that.

That noted, in the spirit of listing what is good about Shanghai, let me suggest that you have not truly lived until you spend an early evening walking down the French Concession’s still intact lanes while the cicadas sing around you. Incomparable.

August 2, 2008 @ 6:04 pm | Comment

Otherlisa: Yanqing has the best Yanjing brews. The 燕京干啤 I buy by the crateload from the nearest store to my in-laws’ house is vastly superior to any Yanjing brew south of the Jundushan.

Mr Minter: We have far more to talk about than just politics and architecture, and I, for one, am quite happy to take unreasonable amounts of time to get things done. Your French Concession suggestion sounds pretty good, though, if I ever get down to Shanghai, I’ll give it a go.

August 3, 2008 @ 5:55 pm | Comment

Beijing’s best feature is the departure lounge at the international airport. The best feeling you can ever have in Beijing is of leaving it.

August 4, 2008 @ 6:26 pm | Comment

Shangers and the Jing both have good and bad points.

August 16, 2008 @ 9:57 pm | Comment

I can understand the Beijing – Shanghai hate in the comments here. Without blue sky most of the year, a beautiful coastline, fabulous inexpensive food (try a jin of oysters for 6 Yuan, or a jin of fresh king prawns for 8 Yuan froog), congestion free roads, and beautiful friendly people, I’d imagine there’d be a lot of pent-up rage.

Chill out, move to Dalian!


May 25, 2009 @ 9:11 pm | Comment

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